Sunday, May 08, 2005

Russia Off the Deep End on VE Day

The photo is from the book Harvest of Despair by Karel C. Berkhoff

The initial invitation of the Putin administration to the heads of former Soviet Republics to come to Moscow for VE day already was arrogant enough; the uproar of politicians, pundits and other supporters of the Putin administration over the initially polite decline to participate in the Moscow festivities by two Baltic heads of state and the Ukrainian president is even worse, putting the lie to the myth that the current Russian government and it’s pundits seek to build a democratic, post-colonial Russia that will be cooperative with an EU now on its borders. The logic of the invitation—“We defeated the Nazis together, so we should celebrate together”—is a chauvinist ploy that thankfully was recognized as such by the leadership of the Baltic States and of Ukraine. As ploy, it is part of an increasingly desperate attempt to win major ideological capital for Russian neo-imperialism after the major set back of the Rose and Orange Revolutions and of the rebellion in Kyrgyzstan. The main target audiences for the Russian and Russophile uproar over the refusal to participate are members of the Russian diaspora and those non-Russians with an aged Soviet mentality in Russia’s so-called “near-abroad,” and Western pundits vulnerable, for a variety of reasons, to the Russian version of things. The goal is to win leverage from the EU over the Baltic States and destabilization of Ukraine, which is beginning its long gallop out of Russia’s reach. The rationale is that without a unified sense of Eastern European history that places the emphasis on the role of the Great Russian people in the course of all its major events, there can be no future empire for Russia, and no neo-imperial influence in the near-abroad at present. Crucial to holding that vision of history together is the old Soviet ideology of WWII, which Putin’s administration is making clear is also part of Russia’s post-Soviet inheritance. The conclusion: Putin’s government has no intention of engaging with nor encouraging a process of decolonizing Russia’s mentality and foreign policy, even after the Rose and Orange Revolutions. As Putin has recently said, “The greatest catastrophe of the Twentieth Century was the collapse of the Soviet Union,” and “Russia and Ukraine are like East and West Germany.”

Togetherness is not the word that most people (or most non-Russians) in the Baltics and many in Ukraine would use to describe the monumental struggle against Nazi Germany (although in Ukraine, the situation is much more complicated. . .). Togetherness suggests far too much a notion of people struggling together out of free and goodwill; what happened in WWII was cooperation that was the result of necessity. But I don’t even want to engage the issue on this level: what is most appalling is that with this whole issue, the Russian government and its pundits are attempting to dictate how the Baltics and Ukrainians should recall their own past; in this case their own experiences of WWII. Moscow used to tell them not to remember their real history in Soviet times, and now Moscow is doing so again. “Forget about all that that was specific to your experience! Remember how you fought with us, your Big Brothers and Sisters! Come to Moscow!”

People want the chance to remember the real history. They want to be left alone to finally rebuild their own memories of the past, and to build their own futures. This is especially important to Ukraine, which still lags far behind the Baltic States in de-Sovietizing how history is taught and how the past is remembered. Thank you Yushchenko for choosing to stay in Ukraine. (And even though I think it would have been much better for Latvia’s Freiberga to not have broken Baltic solidarity on this matter and chosen to stay in Latvia tomorrow—Monday, May 9, 2005—she is admirably at least trying to make a point of her visit to Moscow: “Our History of that period is not Your History. And do You even know Your real History?”)

As for what the pundits are saying, it is despicable the way they are repeating all of the old Soviet myths about rampaging Baltic and Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazi program; about the partisans, and about those who joined anti-Soviet units formed under German tutelage (and unfortunately these are largely Western myths, too; Westerner culture traffics in so many stereotypes about rabid Eastern European collaboration with the Nazis, too). That they are bringing all this up in reaction to the refusal to come to Moscow with the sensibility of, “Ah-hah! We told you that they in the end were anti-Semites, Nazi collaborators and nationalists!” only makes them look ridiculous. It shows how small is their human dignity and their understanding. They seem to have forgotten that there would be no issue if Putin had not made the invitation in the first place, and if the pro-Putin pundits did not make such a big stink of the refusal. The Putin government probably expected the refusal, anyway, and they probably hoped that they could, by dragging into the open all these old Soviet spook stories about wicked, fascist partisans, throw egg in the face of the post-OR authorities in Ukraine, and of their old adversaries in the Baltics.

Russia needs to stay out so that these countries can work out their own version of the past. I am intimate with this issue myself. My father’s family is from the Ternopil region of Western Ukraine; my mother’s family is from the Poltava region of Central Ukraine. My father was born on the road while his parents and two sisters were fleeing the Red Army’s advance back into Ukraine; my mother was born in Germany because her parent’s had been Ostarbeitere (workers who were forcibly taken from home to work in munitions plants in Germany). My father has an uncle who fought at the Battle of Brody as part of the SS Galicia division (a division of Ukrainians formed under the SS that was organized ONLY to fight the Red Army and had NOTHING to do with the Holocaust, and whose members thought they would later form the chore of an independent Ukrainian Army; see the snippet I include below about them); my mother has an uncle who also fought at Brody, but with the Red Army. My father’s uncle survived the battle, even though his unit suffered 70% casualties as the Germans used the Ukrainian and other non-German units as canon-fodder; my mother’s uncle died at that battle. One member of my mother’s family once said to me that my father’s uncle killed her uncle; my father’s family is proud of his contribution to the struggle for a free and independent Ukraine. Some members of my father’s family refer to Central and Eastern Ukrainians as Moskali (derogatory term for Russians and what could be called “Russified Ukrainians”); some of my mother’s family say Western Ukrainians are all Banderivtsi (a name of one partisan group that Soviet propaganda painted as pro-Nazi and fascist). Members of both sides voted for Yushchenko. Upon learning this, some of my family in Western Ukraine admitted that things were more hopeful in Ukraine than they thought. With my Poltava family, the process of coming to the decision to vote for Yushchenko also came with the admittance that perhaps what they know of their own history and of Western Ukrainians was also a lie. Whatever be the case for them, the Russian government and Russian pundits should stay out of it: they must let Ukrainians—which I use here not in the ethnic sense but in the civic one including Ukrainian citizens of every culture and language—work out their version of the events of the past. And Western Ukrainians must have the first chance in their life to tell their stories openly in Kyiv (HELLO Symonenko!).

That is precisely what Russia is afraid of; and the invitation and the uproar is just more manipulation, is just the same as Putin’s open support for Yankovych.

For two good, recent resources that deal comprehensively with the complexities of the history of Ukraine during WWII:

Check out the book Harvest of Despair by Karel C. Berkhoff, published just last year. It covers the history of parts of Western and Central Ukraine under German occupation (the area of the Reichskomissariat).

Get a copy of Slavko Nowytski’s recent documentary, Between Hitler and Stalin: Ukraine in WWII: The Untold Story.

Also check-out the pamphlet written some years ago by Myron Kuropas, as he sought to combat 60 Minutes for a segment in which it made use of all the lies, distortions, and exaggerations about Ukrainians who fought briefly on the German side during WWII that the Russian government and its pundits, both in Ukraine and in Russia and elsewhere, are now repeating. It is entitled, Scourging of a Nation: CBS and the Defamation of Ukraine.

My next piece will be on the myth of widespread Eastern European collaboration with the Nazis. I will ruminate on the following question: Why is the general image of France during WWII in the Western mind of the Resistance and of Ukraine of widespread collaboration and anti-Semitism, when Ukraine had an active and large resistance (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army fought both Nazis and the Soviets and had possibly up to 100,000 soldiers at its highpoint, and thousands of others actively supporting it as doctors and other supportive staff throughout most of Western Ukraine and many parts of the central regions) while most of France was governed by an actively collaborationist government of Frenchmen, and Jews were rounded up and deported to death camps there, too. I don’t deny that some Ukrainians participated in the slaughter, but I am tired of Ukrainians being singled out as particularly wretched, more so than Germans or French or Dutch (Anne Frank was betrayed in Amsterdam, mind you), etc., during the course of WWII.

Some websites about the anti-Soviet, anti-German partisan army, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA, from the Ukrainian initials): (this site is quite detailed)

And oh, that snippet about that SS Galicia division; its from Kuropas' pamphlet mentioned above, pp. 9-10:

The so-called Galician Division (Himmler forbade the use of the term “Ukrainian”) was established in the summer of 1943, when the German army was already beginning its retreat from Soviet territories. The rounding up of Ukraine’s Jews, begun in 1941, was essentially complete before the division was raised. The only Ukrainian Jews who did survive until 1943 were those being sheltered by other Ukrainians.

[In 1943] tens of thousands of Jews were still in hiding throughout the General Government [western Ukraine], the Eastern Territories and the Ukraine. But German searches for them were continuous.

The Galicia Division, properly identified, at first, as the SS Volunteer Division “Galicia” became, from June 1944, the 14th Volunteer Grenadier Division of the SS, 1st Galician. According to Ukrainian and German sources, the division was unique because (1) it was strictly a combat unit and so played no role in the management of concentration camps or death camps; (2) its Ukrainian members wore a lion rampant [lion symbolism is associated with Galician history and especially with the city of L’viv; Stefan] instead of an “SS” on their right collars during most of the life of the division; (3) its ranks and titles were those of the Wehrmacht [the German Regular Army that pre-existed the rise of the Nazis; Stefan] rather than the SS; (4) it was accompanied by Ukrainian chaplains who attended to the spiritual needs of the troops; (5) it was kept separate from other German forces; (6) it was created with the proviso that it never be used against the Western Allies but only against Soviet forces on the Eastern front. [2]
The Galicia Division fought the Soviets in a major engagement near the Ukrainian town of Brody. Decimated, its remnants went west. In early 1945, its survivors were regrouped into the 1st Division of the Ukrainian National Army, under the leadership of General Pavlo Shandruk. These Ukrainians all believed that the military training and experience they were receiving under German tutelage would allow them to establish a Ukrainian army capable of freeing Ukraine from the Soviets. Some of these Ukrainian veterans did indeed stay in Ukraine, joining the ranks of the underground. Other moved west where they fought with the French underground against the Nazis. Most ended up marching into northeastern Italy where the Ukrainian National Army surrendered to British forces. . .

These were the kind of men who held a reunion in Brody during the summer of 1994.

So ends the Kuropas passage (Sorry, I didn't include the notes). . .and these are the kind of men that want to stand on Kyiv’s Independence Square on May 9, 2005.

Us’oho najkrashchoho (All the Best),


PS--I suppose one should also do a piece on the complexities of this matter in Ukraine, or about how those who are still beholden to the Soviet view of the UPA, OUN, and Galicia Divison are now potential pawns of the Russian neo-imperialist propaganda, just as those are who believe the Russophile propaganda that Yushchenko is a nationalist who will close Russian language schools and who wants to run the Russian language out of Ukraine. Truth is not relative, but one does have to deal with the reality of those whose grasp on the truth is. . .

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